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Contextual Inquiry: Observing How Users Interact with Systems and Workflows

| August 5, 2015
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Of the many tools user experience researchers use, contextual inquiry is often one of the least known. Despite this, it’s a great way to uncover usability issues. When it comes to finding inefficiencies in tasks or workflows resulting from bad design, contextual inquiry should be one of the first methodologies you try.

So, what is contextual inquiry?

Contextual inquiry is reminiscent of anthropological research, and relies heavily on participant observation. For this reason, it’s a highly qualitative methodology that does not require a big sample. Its premise is to discover flaws that stem from bad design.

As people grow accustomed to usability issues and find ways of working around them, they slowly forget they even existed in the first place! This is when contextual inquiry can be especially helpful. Through direct observation, it allows researchers to look beyond theory and focus on what is actually done in practice. That way you can identify which designs or workflow strategies are problematic, and what heuristic solutions more experienced users have implemented to work around them.

These observations can provide valuable insight toward addressing many issues. For example, if a senior employee has their own unique checklist that makes their work easier, there may be an opportunity to incorporate that same checklist into the design of the existing workflow, improving the overall experience—as well as productivity—of everyone.

When it comes to what you inquire, context is key: it’s in the name! Take note of your and your user’s surroundings and every tool (e.g. paper and pencils), techniques (e.g. affinity diagrams, moderated testing), or technologies (e.g. cloud storage, collaborative writing) relating to the overall workflow and objective. The goal is to better understand how everything interacts and influences the tasks and workflow.

Here are some simple steps to conducting contextual inquiry yourself:

  • Identify your key research questions. Make sure they relate to the overall task or workflow, but keep them broad, keeping in mind their underlying objectives and anticipated outcomes.
  • Find a participant. The ideal participant is someone especially familiar or proficient with the tool or platform being tested so you can observe any heuristic shortcuts they may have developed.
  • Play your role. You and the participant will adopt roles traditionally known as “master and apprentice” (think superuser and newbie), with the researcher as the apprentice and the participant as the master. As the newbie, you’ll be asking the super user questions relating to what they do, how they do it, and why.
  • Identify shortcuts or heuristics participants use. Note any instances where the participant does something interesting, unexpected, or confusing, be it for you or themselves.
  • Review your notes and reflect on your observations. Try to understand the function of each of the tasks and see if any can be simplified, or even eliminated altogether.

Logistics of contextual inquiry studies

Contextual inquiry studies typically take about an hour. They also usually require an NDA because you need to be observing participants in their natural working environment, and will likely interact with sensitive or proprietary information. I would recommend taking audio and video recordings, as they assist with note taking and free you up to to ask more questions.

The informal and dynamic nature of contextual inquiry makes it one of the more difficult methodologies to master. Researchers need to be mindful of their primary research questions as they go about observing and asking further questions. Sometimes going in depth on a subject that might not seem relevant can reveal crucial information.

Compared to other methodologies, contextual inquiry doesn’t rely on big sample sizes.

Things to consider before trying contextual inquiry

Products need to be complex enough that the environment matters

Sometimes contextual inquiry isn’t the best methodology to use. For example, workflows done on single channels or simple interfaces, as is usually the case with apps and websites, aren’t ideal candidates for contextual inquiry. Digital platforms tend to be lacking in contextual information and interaction, with most interactions occurring independently of the environment.

Contextual inquiry adopts a more holistic perspective in the way it seeks to find meaning in and across a variety of different settings, and more often than not, research done on websites or apps just don’t offer enough to work with.

Products need to have a base of power users

Another important aspect of contextual inquiry is timing. Because you’re observing participants using fully functioning software or systems, you need a completed product. That means contextual inquiry comes at the end of the testing cycle, after prototyping and implementation. You need a system or design that has seen extensive use and actually has superusers.

Do plenty of usability testing first

You should conduct usability research—lots of it!—before you’re ready for contextual inquiry. Testing early and often will not only help you identify usability and user experience issues, it will also help guide your objectives and questions once you’re ready for contextual inquiry. The most important thing isn’t just to answer all your research questions, but to ask the right ones!